Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture
Vol. 1 No. 2, 1987
Film, TV and the Popular
Edited by Philip Bell & Kari Hanet

Exploring the paradoxes:
on comparing film and theatre

Gay McAuley

A recurring theme in film theory has been the comparison of film and theatre and the shifting relationship between them. 1 The object of most of this comparative work has been to describe the differences between what are seen as two dramatic genres, to situate them in relation to each other, and in so doing to establish the essence or specificity of each. In recent years, despite a move away from 'essentialist' or normative theory, there have been a number of books recapitulating the terms of what Gregory Waller calls the "stage/screen debate". 2

Comparison has, however, proved a rather difficult undertaking, and anyone who ventures into this domain will find it slippery, uncomfortable ground, mined with explosive paradoxes. In the first place, the two art forms are in a constant process of development and comparisons which might be valid at any given moment in time quickly become outdated. What seems at one period to be inherent in the art form itself, an aesthetic truth, valid for all time, is revealed a few years later to have been the product of a particular set of historical, cultural and social factors. While this fact has bedevilled theorists and philosophers of art throughout history, the problem has been compounded in the 20th century by the way the artistic enterprise has involved continual challenges to existing boundaries, the continual breaking down of distinctions between genres, between art forms and between media. A historical perspective is thus essential in any attempt at comparative aesthetics.

The second problem is that discussion of the essence or specificity of an art form is very quickly liable to become normative: critics establish the 'essence' of a particular art form from their own historical, cultural and personal perspective, but they then all too easily begin to use that definition in order to exclude all manifestations which run counter to it.

It is of course very difficult to make comparisons of film and theatre without attempting to identify the 'nature' of film and the 'nature' of theatre and, while the comparative observations which follow may well be seen as essentialist philosophising, they have in fact arisen from purely practical concerns. I have been experimenting for some years with the use of film and video to record theatrical performance and this has led to reflections on film, television and theatre as modes of presenting the dramatic, and on the ways in which our understanding of the dramatic has been modified and expanded by the development of new support media. It seems to me that we have to attempt to identify and articulate the differences between the dramatic modes we now possess, as we now see them, for they are different even if the boundaries shift and blur, and even though the differences do not remain constant from period to period. This paper, while attempting to avoid the reef of normative prescription, will nevertheless propose a number of general reflections which have the intention of illuminating by contrast what I take from my current perspective, to be fundamental differences between film and theatre.

The approach is a modest one: to start from some of the accepted facts about film and theatre, not to subject them to a radical new critique, but simply to tease out some of the implications of those apparently incontrovertible truths.

My concern is with film and theatre only insofar as they are engaged in presenting fiction, in story telling. It is evident that a good many film genres are not concerned with the presentation of fiction (documentary, reportage, travelogue, some animation, etc.). Theatre, too, can communicate in other ways than through story telling (some happenings, some 'pure' performance) although these modes are less central to its existence than the film genres just listed. May we then say that the presentation of fiction is far more central to theatre than it is to film? It occupies nearly all theatrical activity as we have known it for 2500 years, but it excludes a significant portion of film production and an even larger portion of television activity. 3

It has been generally accepted that film and theatre are both dramatic genres in some portion of their activity at least, that both are concerned to tell stories in the dramatic mode. My definition of dramatic is a mode of story telling or presentation in which events are enacted in the present. This definition accords with that given by Raymond Williams in the article quoted above: for him the necessary conditions are "performance" and "imitation". Dramatic in this context can be contrasted with narrative which I would define as a mode of story telling or presentation in which events, having occurred in the past, are recounted in the present.

Nobody would deny that theatre is a dramatic genre, working through performance and imitation to tell a story. It does, however, contain some narrative elements. There is, for instance, a tradition from classical theatre onwards of narrated action (the messenger's account, the recit, even the dream as a means of recounting future action). Film, too, works through performance and imitation to tell a story, but there are good arguments for seeing it as much as a narrative genre as a dramatic one.

There is certainly an affinity between filmic and narrative genres such as the novel or the short story. These lend themselves to screen adaptation far more readily than to the stage. Plays, on the other hand, are more difficult to adapt to the screen, and the traces of theatricality which remain are disturbing, even disruptive, and need to be contextualised in some way. The traces of narrativity which remain when a novel or short story is adapted for the screen do not seem to pose such difficulty. Television is perhaps even more able than film to assimilate such traces of narrativity and there is a genre of television comedy (exemplified by programmes like It takes a worried man or Shelley) which consists of a series of extensive narrative segments set in a minimal dramatic context.

It has frequently been observed that film is closer to the novel than to the theatre in its fluid treatment of space and time, and in its shifting point of view. More significant even than this is the fact that both film and the novel tend to centralise this narrating function, they are both very strongly focalised forms of presentation.

We should then perhaps say that theatre is primarily a dramatic medium (insofar as it uses actors to embody fictional characters) and has those actors enact happenings and speak dialogue while film is only partially dramatic. Film on the other hand, is strongly narrative (insofar as the camera/editing process contitutes a focalised and clearly foregrounded narrating discourse) while theatre is only partially a narrative medium (narrative presentation does take place in the theatre, but normally in certain codified ways, and always in some clear relationship to the dominant mimetic fiction).

Paradoxically it is film which commonly dramatises past and future events (in flashbacks and flashforwards), while these are precisely the events which in theatre are commonly recounted (the dream, the recit, etc.). We are dealing here with questions of degree, of emphasis rather than fundamental distinctions.

It is generally agreed by contemporary narratologists that the presentation of any fiction involves three necessary components: in the terminology proposed by Gerard Genette these are histoire, recit and narration.4 Insofar as both film and theatre tell stories, all three components must be functioning in some way. Questions associated with the transformation of histoire into recit go to the heart of crucial differences between film and theatre: how many units, how are they constituted, what duration, what order of presentation, what relationship to each other, how are they linked, which events are enacted and which are recounted, recounted by whom, how, where. The narration function is, if anything, even more illuminating than the histoire/recit nexus in the comparative context.

The functions of the narration in a prose narrative, besides the central one of telling the reader what is happening, are to direct our judgement of the events and characters, to make us believe what we are being told, and to provide a value loaded commentary on the events recounted. In film this function is clearly assumed by the camera, the editing and the extra-diegetic sound. There may be a narrator figure in the film, either as character on the screen or as voice on the sound track or both, but regardless of this, the camera and editing process function to narrate both the narrator and what he/she narrates. Camera angles, shot composition, montage, music (to name only the most obvious devices) continually convey a point of view towards what is being said and done, i.e. towards the dramatic component. In film the dramatic component is continually placed, distanced, judged by the narrating 'voice' of the camera.

The situation in the theatre is by no means as clear, and the parallel with prose narrative is not as marked. Yet if the play is telling a story then the three elements must be present in some form. I would say that it is the mise en scene that provides the narration in theatre, that is to say that the play is narrated through its mise en scene. When a play is read, it is a story that is missing its narration, unless the playwright has incorporated a partial one through detailed written stage directions.

The question then arises whether it is the mise en scene in general which fulfills this function, or certain aspects in particular. The extent to which the narration might be indicated in the play text, the elements which might contain those indications, and the extent to which the indications might be decisive in any subsequent production are all questions which cannot yet be answered. A great deal of work remains to be done on the relationship between the play/text and the performances it generates.

What can be claimed with some assurance, however, is that the narration in theatre is far more diffuse and less clearly focalised than in either film or novel. Mise en scene is, by definition, multiple and multi-focused, and the actor is of crucial importance here as everywhere else in the theatre. Each actor in the theatre is the narrator of his/her own character, and this is as true of the most 'Aristotelian' or 'Stanislavskian' drama as of the most 'epic' in which, of course, the narrator function has been foregrounded.

It is because each actor 'narrates' his/her character (presents, interprets, adopts a point of view towards, and enjoins the spectator to share that view) that no given actor's presentation is definitive or exhaustive. In theatre then we are dealing with multiple narrators (at the least all the actors together with the major sign systems associated with the space itself - set, blocking, lighting, etc), and those mini-narrations, in dialectical relationship with each other, combine to form the global narration. The fact that the selfsame text can be seen to mean so many different things in performance is a clear indication that the narration function is provided by the mise en scene and is not incorporated in a determining way in the play text.

It has already been pointed out that filmic narration, too, is composed of numerous elements (camera, music, voice, editing) and we can legitimately ask if it is not then equally multiple, equally diffuse, equally multi-focused. The answer seems to be that in practice it is not. This may be due to the fact that film making practice has to date stressed coherence or it may be due to the strongly centralising power of the camera. The camera certainly has great power to make the spectator adopt its point of view: we see what the camera shows at any moment, and we do not see what it does not show. The parallel between film and prose narrative is very strong here: if a novel tells us that "the countess went out at five o'clock" we believe that she did. In the theatre each narrator is always seen in the context of other narrators, there is always a certain tension between the various narrating 'voices'.

The subject of the narrating discourse, what Peter Szondi calls "Le moi epique"5, is always present, always strongly felt in film, largely through the power of the camera. This subject is normally not present in the theatre, or rather it is multiple: every actor is a "moi epique". We might perhaps see in the work of Tadeusz Kantor, the shadowy presence of the writer/metteur en scene hovering on the edges of the performance space, an attempt to introduce the "moi epique" into the performance. But this presence can also be seen as that of primary, privileged spectator.

Another apparently incontrovertible fact on which agreement has been constant over the years concerns the centrality of the actor in theatrical communication and the lesser importance of the actor in film.

The actor is certainly the prime focus of attention in the theatre, but this fundamental fact needs qualification. Theatrical performance is a communication between live actors and live spectators present together in the same space. Three elements are thus crucial: actor, spectator and a given space, and it is not possible to separate these three although theorists frequently attempt to do so.

Practitioners like Jacques Copeau in 1914 and Jerzy Grotowski fifty years later, in their attempts to refine theatre down to its essence, both found this in the actor and the expressive resources of the human body. It is significant, however, that when Grotowski in his process of discarding non-essential elements, subsequently discarded the audience too, he moved from theatrical to what he himself termed "paratheatrical" activity. This bears out the point made above about theatre being a relationship: while the actor is the active agent the other two terms of the relationship are equally critical.

The actor constitutes the stage as stage by his occupation of it: actors have the power to transform audience space into 'stage' by moving into it, and for the duration of their presence that portion of the space they occupy becomes performance space, and those unfortunate spectators present in it become performers in spite of themselves. It is, however, equally true that it is the spectator who constructs the performer as performer by the act of watching. The essential fact is that in the theatre the actor is always situated in a given space, watched by the spectators in their space.

Furthermore, nothing on stage has any stable meaning divorced from the human agency of the actor. It is for example the actor who creates the sense of place even if an elaborate representational decor is also used. There is of course a long tradition of theatrical expression in which the sense of place is created exclusively by the actors with no support from pictorial or representational staging. But even a stage with a meticulously realistic set will begin to be perceived as stage if it is left empty of actors for an appreciable time. In the cinema, by contrast, a screen image of a place without any human presence is still perceived to be that place. The critical factor in the cinema seems to be movement, either of elements within the shot or, more importantly, of the camera itself. A screen image in which there is no movement, filmed by a fixed camera would, if left on the screen for an appreciable time, begin to be perceived as pure image.

The theatre is, like film, a collective art form and many artists and craftspeople contribute to the final product but the actor is pre-eminent among these. The actor is responsible for, and ultimately in control of, all the major sign systems operating in the theatre. The playwright may write the dialogue but the paralinguistic features which are such a decisive part of the meaning conveyed are the responsibility of the actor. Most importantly, it is the actor who undertakes night after night the interaction with the audience, who responds to the moods of the many headed monster with infinitesimal modifications of the performance. The actors can, over the run of a production, gradually subvert the intentions of the director, and their performances continue to develop long after the rehearsal period. The Swedish film director Vilgot Sjoman makes a revealing comment in explaining why, as a director, he prefers film to theatre:

What I find painful in the theatre is the process of leaving - I mean the director gradually pulling back, slowly giving over more and more to the actors, until on opening night you're cut free. I can hardly stand this (I understand the actors love it). 6

Despite the importance of the director in the theatre of this century, theatre remains the actor's medium.

Film, like theatre, uses actors to embody fictional characters and film has raised actors to great public prominence and wealth. The actor is, however, not central to the communication process in the cinema. The film actor is one element among many. Indeed actors as such are not even necessary. In the theatre amateur actors produce amateur theatre even if the play is written by Shakespeare, and the idea of putting on stage someone who will not 'act' but merely 'be' is inconceivable outside the esoteric domain of the happening. In the cinema, on the contrary, both possibilities have frequently been used with powerful results.7 Animals can be seen to 'act' on the screen, and even inanimate objects can play a dynamic role independently of any overt human intervention.

Film actors, professional or otherwise, do not create a totality as do stage actors. Rather they provide the raw material, frequently in fragmentary form, from which the director and editor will create a totality. The totality comes not from the actors' performances but what is done with those performances, from their exploitation by the camera, and from the ordering and juxtaposition with elements not derived from actors' performance that takes place during the editing process. Meaning in film comes from what the camera shows us and how this material is ordered and presented (an apparently harmless scene can for example be filled with menace if accompanied by appropriately suspenseful music). It is essentially the cutting and ordering that leads the spectator to construct meanings. The work of the actor, far from being the central communicating force that it is in the theatre, is simply one of the things the camera records, relates (in both senses of the word), and comments upon.

It is generally agreed that the shot is the basic structural unit from which a film is made up. This is another example of a statement which is so obvious as to be platitudinous in relation to one medium but which can lead to some interesting speculation when applied to the other. Can we, for example, distinguish any comparable structural units in theatrical performance?

A basic structural unit is of course not to be confused with the minimal units which function in verbal expression and it is not claimed that the shot is a minimal unit of sense on any facile linguistic analogy. Shots vary widely in duration, quantity of information conveyed, number of sign systems which are operating, etc. Some of the signifying systems involved in film or theatrical performance do have their own minimal units while others do not, but in any case the combination of a number of signifying systems does not produce clearly definable minimal units of the kind that semiologists sought at one time to identify.8

Film and theatrical performance do, however, both possess a structure, that is to say that both are built up from a number of component parts, and in both the meaning of the work comes principally from the relationship between parts. In a film, while the shot is a clearly distinguishable unit, the larger structural units (scenes and sequences) are much more problematical in that they derive from what Daniel Percheron calls "un code mixte, ˆ cheval sur le cinematographique, et le narratif."9 In the theatre the situation is reversed in that it is the largest structural units (acts and scenes) which are clearly distinguishable while the micro segmentation of the performance continuum is far more problematical. Conventions involving the use of curtains, blackouts, shifts in the position of furniture and elements of the decor, and the entrance and exit of actors are utilised in different performance traditions to signal the demarcation of the performance into what Anne Ubersfeld calls "les grandes sequences" and "les sequences moyennes".10 Structural units at this level are usually indicated by the playwright and are named and numbered in the text; but the smaller structural units (Ubersfeld's "micro-sequences") are not nearly as clearly indicated in the text, if at all, and there is as yet no general agreement amongst performance theorists as to their nature and composition.

All films are necessarily made up of a number of shots joined together and whether the object of the filmmaker has been to mask the traces of this construction process (as in the realistic film aesthetic) or whether on the contrary the construction process is being foregrounded, the shot is an undisguisable presence. The micro-segmentation in film is thus foregrounded by the medium itself. Every time that the shot changes (normally several hundred times in a one and a half hour film) we are reminded that we are watching a structured totality, a construct, and we are thereby invited to adopt an analytical stance. It is one of the paradoxes of the film medium that, while it possesses such power to create the impression of reality, such power to involve the viewer emotionally, it is at the same time reminding us several times a minute that what we are watching is not reality but an artificial construct.

While there is no structural unit in the theatre which is strictly comparable to the shot, it is nevertheless true that the performance continuum must be segmented in some way, and furthermore the spectators must be aware at some level of their consciousness of the principle of this segmentation otherwise they would be unable to "read", make sense with/from the performance.

Part of the theoretical difficulty here is doubtless due to the fact that we are dealing with a phenomenon which exists in two guises: text and performance. The bulk of scholarly activity has throughout history been devoted to the text but the answers to this question may be more readily visible in performance and probably even more so in the rehearsal process which produces the performance. This has been the focus of my research for the last five years or so and, without going into too much detail,11 my proposition is that the micro- segmentation of theatrical performance is based on the position and movement of the actors within the scenic space.

In French classical theatre there is a graphic convention whereby the scenes (Uberfeld's "sequences moyennes") are numbered by the playwright within each act, a new scene being indicated each time a character enters or leaves the scenic space. Scenes are thus of variable length and contain a variable amount of dramatic action. This graphic convention has the effect of foregrounding the segmentation when the play is read as a book, but the important point is that the structural principle involved has been derived from stage practice, from experience of plays in performance, not from reading. Each entrance or exit is a performance event, and is perceived by the spectators to signal a new structural unit. Furthermore the structural unit is based on what I have earlier in this article defined as the essence of theatrical expression: the actor in the space. The micro-segmentation derives equally from this spatial principle and it is my contention that each move by actors within the scenic space constitutes a new structural unit. It is no coincidence that directors and actors use the term 'blocking' (with its suggestion of division into blocks or units) to refer to the organisation of the dramatic action in the scenic space, nor that that process should occupy such a large proportion of the rehearsal time. In the theatre the micro-segmentation of the performance is signalled essentially by the actor even though other sign systems may be involved to reinforce this at critical moments.

As the preceding remarks indicate, a general statement which is so widely accepted as to be platitudinous in relation to one of the art forms can lead to the wildest speculation in relation to the other. A brief recapitulation of some of the observations to which this comparative work has led is perhaps in order here.

Film is a construction made up of a series of images: hundreds of separate shots in which any action is fragmented and then reassembled. It is a form of story telling posited essentially on a linear sequence of images. Theatre, on the other hand, is a construction made up of a series of events (not fictional events at the level of plot but real events at the level of performance). It is a form of story telling posited on physical movement into, out of and within a given space.

Theatre is in my view primarily a spatial art while film is primarily temporal; film may indeed be closer to music than to painting or any of the plastic arts despite the strong visual content. The visual is always fragmented and then reconstituted, and the fragmentation/reconstruction process creates a rhythm which is itself a crucial factor in the spectator's construction of meaning.

Film and theatre use both dramatic and narrative modes of story telling but in different proportions, and the narrating discourse is undertaken by different elements: essentially the camera in film, essentially the actors in the theatre. The narrating discourse which is a necessary part of both dramatic and narrative story telling is more obvious, more unavoidably foregrounded, more focused in film and necessarily more diffuse in theatre.

The filmic process inevitably interferes with and distorts the profilmic reality from which it then reconstructs a new 'reality'. This totally artificial construct nevertheless possesses the power to convince us of its authenticity. Despite the apparent realism and the objective credibility of the images it presents, film is in fact an abstract, cerebral, essentially analytical medium. Theatre on the other hand, despite its need for artifice, convention and ritual in the presentation of the real, is paradoxically a physical, sensuous and essentially concrete medium.

The essential principle of cinematic art may be defined in terms of distortion of reality. In an earlier paper addressing this question the definition I gave was the following: "the extent and the nature of the distortion of reality that the filming and editing processes have introduced".12

The wording lacks elegance but the definition attempts to encompass both the close relationship to reality that is such a feature of the film image, and the equally important fact that any image necessarily contains interpretation, commentary, judgement. The film medium itself necessarily distorts the material it presents, and for me cinematic art is situated in the distance, in the ecart between image and reality.

The essential principle of theatrical art is in my view duality: we are always aware that the stage is simultaneously both stage and fictional place, that the actor is both actor and character, that things are both happening and not happening, that things both are and are not what they seem. The theatre of course has a long tradition of foregrounding this duality (from the Baroque to Brecht, in many different ways and with varying philosophical and ideological import). It is also interesting to note that naturalism, which demands that the duality be suppressed, was a relative failure in the theatre.

This recapitulation of points and attempt at synthesis may sound like a conclusion. I am aware also that it sounds dangerously essentialist. Conclusions in the sense of eternal essences are not appropriate for the reasons given at the beginning of this article. The more we attempt to reflect seriously on the differences between these two art forms (the one which has existed for less than a hundred years, the other for twenty-five times that long), the more we are struck by the complex, dialectical relationship that has existed between them. It seems likely that the irreduceable differences between them (and hence the specificity of each) will emerge only in the future after several generations more of interaction, theorising and practice.

Comparative analyses such as this, clearly situated in time and place, have a part to play. If we define the differences as they appear to us here and now (as Nicoll did in the 1930s, Bazin in the 1950s and Susan Sontag in the 1960s) the paradigms of difference will gradually become clear.


1 See for example Allardyce Nicoll, Film and Theatre (London: Harrap, 1937); S.M. Eisentein, Film Form: Essays in Film Theory and The Film Sense, both translated and edited by J. Leyda, (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1949 and 1942 respectively); Andre Bazin, Qu'est-ce que le cinema (Paris: Edi. du Cerf, 1981); Raymond Williams, "Film and the Dramatic Tradition" in: Preface to Film (London: Film Drama Ltd., 1954), pp.1-55; Susan Sontag, "Film and Theatre" in Tulane Drama Review, n.11, fall, 1966, pp.24-37.

2 Gregory A. Waller, The Stage/Screen Debate: A Study in Popular Aesthetics (New York: Garland Publishing, 1983); Roger Manvell, Theatre and Film (New Jersey: Associated University Presses, 1979).

3 It may be of course that presentation of fiction is central only to that portion of theatrical activity that has been consecrated by our logo-centric culture. Pure performance modes like parades, processions, tournaments, masques etc. have been consigned to the domain of the specialist historian. It is interesting to speculate which aspects of our current TV production will still be talked about in 50-100 years time. One may surmise that serious drama will figure more prominently in that palmares than in the current ratings.

4 Gerard Genette, Figures III (Paris:Eds. du Seuil, 1972), pp.71-2.

5 Peter Szondi, Theorie du drame moderne 1956, trans. P. Pavis (Lausanne: L'Age d'Homme, 1983), p.11.

6 Vilgot Sjoman, "Catching the Rare Moment" in Tulane Drama Revie , v.II, no.1 (1966), pp.102-5.

7 One could cite Godard, Bresson, the Italian neo-Realists, Pudovkin among many others.

8 See for example T. Kowzan, Litterature et spectacle (The Hague: Mouton, 1975), pp.214-215.

9 Daniel Percheron "Sequence" in Lectures du Film, (Paris: Eds. Albatros, 1980), pp.192-7.

10 Anne Ubersfeld, Lire le theatre (Paris: Editions Sociales, 1977), pp.225-245.

11 Results of some of this work are to be found in the following articles: Gay McAuley "Movement Within the Scenic Space and Segmentation of the Performance Continuum" in A. Helbo (Ed), Approches de l'opera (Paris: Didier Erudition, 1986), pp.105-120 and in "Paradigmatic Structures in Text and Performance: Movement and Gesture in Four Performances of Les Bonnes", Kodikas/Code, v.10, nos.1-2, (1987), pp.3-25.

12 Gay McAuley "Freedom and Constraint: Reflections on Aspects of Film and Theatre", AULLA XXII Proceedings (Canberra: Australian National University, 1984), p.216.

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